Social navigation and the resettlement experiences of separated children in Canada.

Author:Denov, Myriam


This article explores the implications of language and discourse for the experiences of separated refugee children in Canada, and the ways in which anti-refugee and anti-child discourses shape the terrain of resettlement. The article begins by tracing the academic and popular discourses of refugee populations generally, and separated children specifically. Given the formulaic and rigid portrayals and representations, we introduce the concept of social navigation, which provides a useful framework to study the resettlement experiences of separated children. Following an overview of the study's methodology, we explore the social navigation and resettlement experiences of seventeen youth. In particular, we highlight the creative, resourceful, and thoughtful ways in which the youth navigated the refugee determination system, experiences of discrimination and isolation, as well as separation and loss during the resettlement process. The article ultimately underscores the ways in which these children and youth strategically navigate resettlement, overcome challenges, and--despite significant ideological barriers and material obstacles--ensure their survival and well-being as individuals and as groups.


Cet article explore les implications de la langue et du discours pour les experiences des enfants refugies separes au Canada et comment le discours anti-refugies et antienfants faconne le terrain de la reinstallation. L'article retrace d'abord les discours savants etpopulaires despopulations de refugies en general, et en particulier des enfants separes. Etant donne des descriptions et des representations stereotypees et rigides, nous introduisons le concept de la navigation sociale qui fournit un cadre utile pour etudier les experiences de reinstallation des enfants separes. Apres un survol de la methodologie de Vetude, nous explorons la navigation sociale et les experiences de reinstallation de dix-sept jeunes refugies. En particulier, nous soulignons les moyens imaginatifs, debrouillards et reflechis par lesquels les jeunes evoluent dans le systeme de determination du statut de refugie, les experiences de discrimination et d'isolement, ainsi que la separation et laperte au corns du processus de reinstallation. L'article souligne finalement la facon dont ces enfants et adolescents naviguent strategiquement la reinstallation, surmontent des difficultes, et, malgre d'importantes barrieres ideologiques et obstacles materiels, assurent leur survie et bien-etre en tant qu'individus et en tant que groupes.

Most [refugees] are smuggled in or are queue-jumpers who lie their way into the country.

--Hazel McCallion, mayor of Mississauga, Ontario (1)

This legislation will help stop foreign criminals, human smugglers and those with unfounded refugee claims from abusing Canada's generous immigration system and receiving taxpayer-funded health and social benefits.

--Jason Kenney, minister of immigration (2)

Let me be free and give me equal opportunities, and I will show you what I can do.

--Akin, separated refugee youth from Ethiopia


Contrary to being a neutral medium of expression, language and discourse serve to construct unequal identities with differential material consequences, empowering and privileging some as legitimate and normative, while subordinating and rendering others as delegitimized. (3) Highlighting the power of discourse and representation, Kellner suggests that Western discourses and media depictions are neither impartial nor insignificant to the ongoing construction and entrenchment of Western thought, values, and identity. (4) Rather, reflecting the power of "meaning, metaphors, representations, images, stories, [and] statements," (5) they inform understandings of "deviance" and "normalcy," "pathology" and "health," and "deserving" and "undeserving." (6) And as such, they "provide [the] materials out of which we forge our very identities, our sense of selfhood; our notion of what it means to be male or female; our sense of class, of ethnicity and race, of nationality, of sexuality, of us' and 'them.'" (7) Determining the parameters of belonging, discourse and language interact with and inform the practices and structures that are lived out in society from day to day, (8) delimiting issues that merit attention, as well as the populations that can legitimately claim aid and access social services. Despite the precariousness of their lives and experiences, (9) separated asylum-seeking and refugee children, who are the focus of this article, are vulnerable to the often exclusionary consequences of these discourses and processes. Yet, as we argue here, these processes and discourses do not unilaterally determine or constrain these youth. Instead, as demonstrated by the young people in our sample, separated asylum-seeking and refugee children actively and thoughtfully navigate the uneven terrain of resettlement, overcoming considerable obstacles, both ideological and material.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines a separated child as "a person who is under the age of eighteen years, unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier and who is separated from both parents and is not being cared for by an adult who law or custom has the responsibility to do so." (10) The UNHCR also estimates that of the 57.4 million people currently displaced, half are children, and that millions of these children have been separated from both parents and adults otherwise legally and/or culturally designated to care for them. (11) Each year, a small but growing number of children will seek asylum under these conditions in industrialized countries, and in Canada it is estimated that approximately 300 separated children arrive each year. (12)

These 300 young people represent one of two principle categories of separated refugee children in Canada. Like other asylum-seekers, they request asylum upon arrival in Canada, either at the border or inland. And while this is their right (as mandated by both Canadian and international refugee protection law), (13) their legal status and standing in Canada is tenuous, contingent upon a successful refugee determination process and mediated largely by the supportive services they are able to access (or not). The second group of separated children are those who arrive via the Government-Assisted Refugee (GAR) Program. These young people arrive as refugees and, as such, are permanent Canadian residents with the rights and privileges thereof. Since 2001, however, a moratorium has restricted the settlement of separated children who do not have family in Canada. Both groups face considerable challenges upon arrival, and while the former must contend with the inconsistencies and contradictions of Canadian refugee protection, (14) both must navigate the precarious terrain of resettlement and "integration."

Drawing on the resettlement experiences of 17 separated children living in Canada, this article demonstrates the ways in which these youth traverse the complex, and at times hostile, terrain of resettlement. In so doing, the article critically engages with the discourses central to the discursive "making" of these youth. Instigated at the level of state policies and practices and propagated by the media, the meanings associated with these young people inevitably shape and inform how they are perceived, as well as the social contexts that they must adapt to. And yet, as we argue, the current popular, political, and, in some instances, academic representations of separated asylum-seeking and refugee children offer little insight into the complexity of their realities and experiences. Nor do they adequately reflect the thoughtful, tactical, and meaningful strategies and methods employed by these youth to cope with and resolve the many obstacles that they encounter during resettlement.

The article begins by tracing the academic and popular discourses and representations of refugee populations generally, and separated children specifically. Historically situated and reflected in state policy and practice, these discourses and representations emphasize the status of separated asylum-seeking and refugee children as both "victimized" and "troublesome" refugees and children. As a result, the ideological or discursive terrain that separated children must navigate is layered, often discordant, and precarious. Given the formulaic, yet contrastive portrayal of these youth, we draw upon the concept of social navigation. Through its emphasis on the tactical and, at times, unexpected ways in which individuals navigate circumstances beyond their control, the concept offers additional insight into the resettlement experiences of separated children by highlighting not only the discursive and material terrain these young people must contend with, but also the strategies they employ to do so. Following an overview of the study's methodology, we explore the creative, resourceful, and thoughtful ways in which the youth navigated the refugee determination system, experiences of discrimination, a lack of formalized support systems, and feelings of guilt during resettlement. These strategies challenge and defy archetypal representations and discourses pertaining to this group of young people.

The Making of Refugees and Separated Children: Discourses of the Extreme

The construction of refugees as inherently problematic has been prominent in historical and contemporary discussions. Early academic literature tended to depict refugees as "evil," carriers of disease, unruly, and immoral. (15) Writing in 1912, Bryan noted in his discussion of Mexican immigrants to the United States, the "evils to the community at large which their presence in large numbers almost invariably brings." (16) A century later, the essence of the discourse has altered little. In their analysis of the discursive construction of refugees and asylum...

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